Enter the WWE Universe in WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011

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WWE Superstars are constantly upping the ante in and out of the ring. Whether it’s with equipment such as tables, ladders, and chairs, stipulations like Hell in a Cell, or backstage hijinks like car accidents, wrestlers do their best to entertain and please their fans. But the spontaneity and variety of the WWE is difficult to recreate in a videogame; it’s tough for THQ to keep up with new Superstars and matches.

This year, THQ is raising the bar for itself. WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 brings a host of improvements and additions that fans have been clamoring for — and one major new mode that wasn’t a request, but looks to transform the way people play the game.

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WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 (PS3, 360, Wii, PSP, PS2, iPhone)
Developer: Yuke’s
Publisher: THQ
To be released:
October 26, 2010 (North America)
October 29, 2010 (Europe, Australia)

Fans of SvR love to play the exotic match types — stuff like Tables, Ladders, and Chairs matches or Money in the Bank contests — but those game types have been hindered by a lack of realistic physics. Slamming someone down onto a ladder never looked any more painful or effective than doing it in the ring, and tables always broke in the same way. But when your match has a particular object in its title, you want that thing to make a meaningful difference in gameplay. To that end, developer Yuke’s has outfitted SvR 2011 with a new physics engine that governs interactions between wrestlers and objects; now, wrestlers will react differently when they come into contact with different objects.

This means that you can do insane things in SvR 2011 that simply weren’t possible before. In a gameplay demo that THQ showed, Rey Mysterio rested a ladder on the ropes from outside the ring, and scampered up it as if it were a ramp into the squared circle. And once you’ve begun a move, you can target an object (such as a table) with the left stick — when asked to relate the craziest thing he’d seen in the game, creative director Cory Ledesma told a story about someone standing up a ladder inside the ring and stacking a table atop another table outside the ring, and then suplexing his opponent off the top of the ladder through both tables. The new physics system doesn’t extend to interactions between wrestlers, who are still tied to canned animations, but it goes a long way toward making things more realistic.

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Yuke’s has also redone the Hell in a Cell match, which was a mere shadow of its real-life self in years past. The cell itself wasn’t nearly as big as a regulation WWE cell, leaving only a one-person width between the cell and the ring. Finally, the game has the same cell you see on TV, which offers much more room for things like throwing your opponent into the cell or grabbing weapons from beneath the ring. And the cell is a physics object: you can target it like you would a table, and slam someone through the cell wall. Of course, you can also climb up and fight on the top of the cell — and send your opponent crashing through the ceiling with, say, a Chokeslam.

But undoubtedly the biggest change to SvR is the introduction of the “WWE Universe” mode, a pervasive setup that Ledesma described as “career mode [and] exhibition mode all tied into one.” In sports games, selecting “exhibition” from the main menu lets you play one-and-done games that ultimately have no meaning once you complete them. Universe changes all of that. It automatically creates a WWE calendar (with Raw, SmackDown, and pay-per-view events) for you — the main menu has a Universe ticker at the bottom that displays the contests scheduled for that night’s show, and based on the exhibition matches you play, Universe will form rivalries and set up future matches.

Universe dynamically generates all this content without you having to lift a finger, or ever go into a separate career mode. It includes all the WWE belts and championship rankings for them — as you win and lose, the rankings change, and Superstars will make their way toward the #1 contender ranking. (Title defenses are saved for PPVs.) The game “adapts to how you play,” explained Ledesma, and it offers an experience that’s completely customizable.

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You’re not forced to play anything the game puts together: if, for example, you’re presented with a John Cena-Randy Orton match, and you don’t like Cena, you can replace him with anyone you want. You even have the power to rearrange the championship rankings, placing your created Superstar at the top. In the My WWE menu, you have the ability to put Superstars on different shows, turn a Superstar from a face to a heel, and change a person’s allies and enemies. (Universe also forms tag teams/alliances based on the matches you play — if you repeatedly put The Miz alongside The Big Show, it will recognize that.)

Universe’s dynamic cutscenes will reflect those alliances, too. As an example, THQ had Sheamus feuding with Randy Orton, where John Cena was Orton’s ally. Sheamus jumped Orton during his ring intro, and later on, after Sheamus had pinned Orton and was about to whack him with a chair, Cena ran out to defend his buddy — and Sheamus backed off. The menu ticker will update you on the status of relationships, saying things like, “Sheamus and Randy Orton’s rivalry has gotten even worse.” If you want to play exhibition matches with no consequences for Universe, you can simply click the right stick at the main menu to turn it off. But if all of this works as advertised, I don’t see a scenario where you’d ever want to do that.

THQ has spent a lot of time implementing Universe, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve left the standalone career mode, Road to WrestleMania, untouched. The three-month journey to the biggest annual PPV event is a much more open-ended experience — THQ has brought back the free-roaming backstage area that was in WWE SmackDown! Here Comes the Pain. It’s a living world where you can interact with Superstars and Divas, and branch out your story. A mini-map shows the layout of the area, which includes locker rooms, offices, a training room (where you can upgrade your Superstar’s attributes), and a green room.

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The backstage area is like a microcosm of a city in an open-world game: you’ll encounter other wrestling personalities, who will be in the middle of their own activities. You might walk in on Randy Orton shooting a promo, or see him on the phone with Stephanie McMahon (since everything occurs in real time, you’ll be able to hear the conversation from the other side by visiting Stephanie’s office). The game allows you to interrupt anybody else, and people will approach you, too. While THQ was playing as Cena, Randy Orton came up to him and dared Cena to hit him. You can decide to take the bait, or be the better man; the decision will send your story in different directions. I noticed that the lip-synching wasn’t even close in most cases, but that’s a minor concern.

Since the backstage zone is, of course, connected to the ring area, you can even rush down there and cause chaos. THQ gave us an example of Chris Jericho running down the ramp and absconding with the title belt during a match. A smartphone hub unifies the experience, with access to e-mail, phone calls, settings, and the status of your unlockable items. One useful unlockable that THQ showed off was a time machine, which allows you to re-watch previous story cutscenes as well as go back to branching decisions so you can replay them from the other side without starting the mode again. It really seems like there’s much more do to in the mode than ever before.

The fans really enjoy the creation suites, and THQ has refined and expanded them in SvR 2011. Last year’s WWE Community Creations feature, which let gamers share their created Superstars, was a big hit with over ten million downloads. Thankfully, you can now edit the outfit or move set of any downloaded wrestler, and the streamlined creation interface makes things “way easier to do.” Attribute points are unlimited, so your created Superstar can be rated higher than anyone else in the game.

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In its third year, Create-A-Finisher offers the ability to create finishing moves out of the corner as well as from the front and the top rope. You can string together up to ten animations (from a selection of more than 500), and adjust each step’s speed, rotation, and range (how much distance the finisher moves). I was able to create a pretty bad-ass finisher in under five minutes — I sat the guy on the second rope, then brought him up to the top rope, from where I superplexed him to the mat. This year, you can create up to 130 different finishers, so go to town.

THQ also has a robust online setup this year. The major problem with keeping up with the craziness of the WWE is that the game’s on-disc content is locked a few weeks before it ships; now, THQ will be able to do that more easily with an “aggressive” slate of downloadable content. For example, Sheamus burst onto the WWE scene last fall and had a rapid ascent to the top; he wasn’t even in last year’s game, but will appear on the European cover of SvR 2011. The plan this year is to keep the game current with a steady stream of DLC — Ledesma didn’t confirm straight-up roster updates per se, but he said we can expect additional wrestlers to be sold through the in-game WWE Store.

Ledesma promised that THQ has reduced the lag that has plagued prior versions of the game, and WWE Community Creations is better than it was last year. Of course, the entire online component of SvR 2011 will be hidden behind an online pass; if you buy the game used (or rent it, or borrow it from a friend), you’ll need to pay $10 to use the game’s online features.

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With SvR 2011, THQ appears to be doing a much better job of responding to fan complaints and requests. The Universe mode alone looks fantastic, and almost everything else has received at least some attention. An annual release schedule doesn’t seem to hurt this iteration of the series — this might just be the best SvR game yet.


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